Lessons from the NTEU Sydney University industrial campaign

29 April 2023
Jerome Small

Sydney University is one of the biggest employers in the country and has some of the deepest pockets. Management reported an incredible $1 billion surplus just last year. What happens at the university industrially matters across the country. Sydney workers’ history of consistent industrial action has won some of the best conditions at any Australian university—until now.

The strike campaign at the University of Sydney has ended prematurely, with concessions to management that vastly outweigh the alleged gains. Workers are now facing historic cuts to core conditions in a proposed new enterprise agreement (EA), along with a dramatic cut in real pay.

At a 700-strong members’ meeting of the National Tertiary Education Union on 18 April, 52 percent of members voted against continuing a campaign of industrial action. Six percent abstained and 42 percent voted to continue to escalate the strikes.

Activists in the NTEU Fightback group at Sydney are advocating that union members vote No to the proposed agreement and are drawing lessons from the industrial campaign.

A terrible deal on wages, and historic cuts to core conditions

It’s easy to misleadingly claim “improvements” and “wins”—but a fair bit of work is needed to analyse what has actually been won and lost.

There is a detailed appendix at the end of this article going over the deep attacks and meagre gains that make up the core of the deal at Sydney Uni. There’s more detail available on the Sydney University Fightback website (both shorter and longer versions). There is a lot of “devil” in that detail. Yet, disgracefully, these are the only sources available to rank-and-file NTEU members that contain any detailed discussion of the clauses that will (very largely) govern the working lives of staff over coming years.

In summary:

Real wages face a dramatic cut. A worker currently getting a little more than the average full-time female wage in Australia will be around $100 per week worse off by July 2024, relative to inflation. This worker will lose around $20,000 in total—equivalent to more than ten weeks of pay—by the time the deal expires in 2026.

For academics, the framework allows an explosion in gruelling “Education Focused Roles”, which can and will be used to undermine existing “balanced” academic positions (that is, positions that include substantial paid time for research).

The framework also ushers in a new form of low paid academic employment with punishing workloads: “PhD Fellow” positions, which look similar to the exploited low paid “grad student” teachers who do much of the teaching work on US campuses.

For professional staff, there is a serious attack on the principle of internal advertising, which is abolished for a third of all professional staff and seriously undermined for most of the rest. This is a crucial condition for job security, and for providing some insulation against management employing wannabe merchant banker head-kickers from private industry to drive “culture change”.

The alleged “gains” in the package being pushed by management, the national leadership of the NTEU and the union’s Sydney University bargaining team are thin indeed. They certainly don’t compensate for the trashing of core conditions and wages. At best, these gains serve as decoration on a deal that will make the working lives of most staff worse, not better.

Sections of the left who have proclaimed that these very limited gains—or the package as a whole—represent “a new benchmark” are seriously misrepresenting the situation. Unfortunately, this “benchmark” continues a pattern of the NTEU’s leadership accepting, or even helping to organise, the undermining of key conditions.

What does this tell us about the NTEU leadership?

For years, the strategy of the NTEU’s top officials, most of them self-proclaimed leftists, has shown strong elements of “business unionism”. This is where the union leadership takes on joint responsibility for managing and even “rationalising” an industry, in collaboration with management.

Exhibit A: everybody knows it was the NTEU national office that cooked up a 15 percent wage cut in response to the pandemic in 2020. This was defeated by a massive, nationwide rank-and-file revolt in the form of a vote No campaign spearheaded by NTEU Fightback.

Less well known is the fact that two of the biggest attacks on workers in the Sydney Uni EA—Education Focused Roles (EFRs) and the PhD Fellow positions—also have their origins in the NTEU national office, as a supposed solution to casualisation.

The most extensive research on EFRs (led by James Goodman of the University of Technology, Sydney) records that they originated from the NTEU national office in 2012 as a supposed solution to the increasing casualisation of academic work. However, the teaching workload for these positions “is unsustainable for academics and for the sector”, with workers “unable to develop a research profile” because of punishing workloads. EFRs “fall short of a solution” to casualisation, and there is a risk that existing roles “will be used as a ‘Trojan Horse’ to expand use of education-focused contracts” at the expense of “balanced” roles with a research fraction.

This is exactly what is happening at Sydney Uni and other universities.

Undeterred by this disaster for workers’ rights—and for academics’ ability to deliver decent teaching to students—the national office of the NTEU has in recent years devised a new category of low paid, insecure work: the PhD Fellow positions.

PhD Fellow positions risk becoming a recipe for extraordinary levels of unpaid work. This certainly seems to be the case at Sydney, according to calculations by the USyd Casuals Network, based on management’s draft proposal.

PhD Fellow positions surfaced for the first time at Melbourne Uni in the 2017-18 bargaining round. In 2021, casuals at Monash University were startled by management announcing that these positions would be introduced following discussions with the NTEU hierarchy. Monash managers have now (as of April 2023) unilaterally announced the large-scale rollout of these positions, without even bothering to consult the local union branch.

The NTEU has a considerable store of decent conditions inherited from the 1970s—an era when higher education was expanding and unions were much more combative. Even then, the predecessor unions of the NTEU were far from militant. Improved conditions won by the strongest unions in that period “flowed through” more or less automatically to other less combative sections of the workforce, including in universities.

As that era has passed and neoliberalism set in, the temptation for the NTEU leadership has been to try to trade these “legacy” conditions in order to remain at the negotiating table. As life member of the NTEU Rick Kuhn noted in 2020, it’s not hard to find parallels with the right-wing Shop Distributive and Allied union which has made such a business model infamous.

The fate of the campaign and the role of the left

Bargaining at Sydney Uni started in the best way possible in 2021—with hundreds of members actively involved in devising an ambitious log of claims. NTEU Fightback members pushed for this process, based on the ambitious bargaining approach of the Chicago Teachers Union among others. And the log of claims reflected widespread endorsement of many of the ideas raised by Fightback for the current bargaining round.

The log attacked longstanding problems of casualisation from several angles (including conversion, raising the casuals loading and restricting the use of casual labour), and pushed an above-inflation pay claim. It included demands to benefit every part of the university workforce: filling of vacant positions for professional staff, protections against outsourcing, and much more.

The long 2021 lockdown in New South Wales, and multiple waves of the virus, were always going to pose a challenge to maintaining momentum.

But at least as important in slowing the campaign down were the combined efforts of activists associated with the nominally left-wing “Rank and File Action” (RAFA) grouping and the more conservative “Thrive” group on the Sydney Uni NTEU branch committee.

In March 2022, these forces united with the leadership of the NTEU to push through a significant amendment to the log of claims. This opened the door for PhD Fellow positions and a dramatic expansion of EFRs. Fightback activists were the only ones to speak against this key turning point in the direction of making concessions.

A ballot for protected action was finally conducted in April 2022. There have been nine strike days since then. This is more than any other NTEU industrial campaign in higher education.

But before we break out the champagne and declare the event “historic”, we should acknowledge that this is a low bar to clear. The University and College Union in the UK took ten days of national strike action in February and early March of this year. In the US, an open-ended five-week strike by 48,000 workers last year at University of California won a 50 percent pay rise for the lowest paid. In contrast, nine days of strikes spread over a year have nothing like the political and industrial impact of nine days of open-ended strike action.

The debate on the NTEU branch committee ahead of each strike was essentially the same. As branch committee member Alma Torlakovic explained in a detailed article in September last year, Fightback was consistently pushing for an escalation of strikes. It’s part of the ABC of effective unionism that strikes are the most powerful weapon workers have, and build strength by uniting all sections of the workforce. However, RAFA combined time and again with Thrive to delay strikes and turn towards the much less effective strategy of bans.

This had consequences. Strikes generate hope: a torturously slow schedule of strikes let hope dissipate. The group Solidarity, which is part of RAFA and has a member on the bargaining team, tweeted in the aftermath of the deal that “many will be left lamenting the untapped potential that escalation might have brought”. There might be less need for “lamenting” if RAFA had sided with Fightback in voting for escalation, rather than arguing and organising against it, for the past year. Repeating the mantra that workers aren’t strong enough to strike so frequently or hold pickets also had self-fulfilling consequences.

Reporting from bargaining has also been an issue. While the word count of reports from bargaining has been substantial, the content has often been vague. There is nowhere that members could easily check at a glance on the progress (or lack of) on each claim.

Crucially, draft clauses were not released to members, stripping them of the ability to analyse the wording that will in large part govern Sydney Uni staff’s working lives for the next few years. Instead, members have been given vague assurances—many of which turn out to be bullshit, on close examination, as described in the appendix below.

Communication with members this year, rather than emphasising the vast gulf between what was being negotiated and what should be in a decent agreement, increasingly indicated that an agreement was “within reach”.

All of this—minimising the significance of concessions or even embracing them, exaggerating gains, and avoiding real accountability in the form of sharing draft clauses or an up-to-date bargaining chart—led to an understandable feeling among some members that the differences were not great enough to strike over any more.

To put all this bluntly: the willingness of RAFA to endorse concessions rather than fight against them, to let the momentum of the industrial campaign dwindle by not supporting more frequent and longer strikes, and to allow the bargaining team to avoid basic accountability, undermined the industrial campaign at least as effectively as the efforts of the right. This fitted into a pattern: Nick Riemer, the RAFA-aligned NTEU Sydney branch president had already celebrated a terrible deal at Western Sydney University as a win that “should reset negotiations everywhere”.

A changing environment

Something has changed at Australian universities. The sort of sporadic strike action seen at Sydney Uni during the current bargaining round has previously been enough to defend many core conditions and win some incremental improvements. But this time around, nine days of strikes spread over twelve months have been insufficient to defeat a series of extremely serious attacks from management.

Government funding is one obvious and important difference. The education funding “reforms” rammed through by the last federal government sever any connection between funding for research and funding for teaching. As education academic Andrew Norton has pointed out, this puts enormous pressure on management to attack the research fraction of as many academics as possible.

Managers at some universities are also clearly losing interest in cooperating with the NTEU—simply because it’s so long (in most cases, literally forever) since the union has organised any serious and escalating campaign of industrial action. Hence the string of non-union ballots during the current enterprise bargaining round (eight at last count).

Despite these increased pressures, the leadership of the NTEU, under recently elected National Secretary Damien Cahill, has continued its disastrous course. The search for partnerships with increasingly hostile management means that the surrender of conditions continues at a faster pace. The cover-ups of these concessions necessarily get more desperate, the exaggeration of slender gains more ridiculous. Union branches that conciliate with this approach instead of confronting it head on are on the path to defeat.

In the short term, Sydney University Fightback activists will argue for a vote No campaign—not in the expectation of winning, but because arguing against a concessionary deal should be the ABC of militant and successful unionism. Notably, RAFA’s sum up of the campaign doesn’t even make this minimal commitment.

Standing up to the fear campaign

With bargaining still underway at many universities, the leadership of the NTEU is rolling out a fear campaign to wrap up deals as quickly as possible. There are three aspects to this.

When Labor’s new industrial relations laws were passed last year, the NTEU hailed them as “a huge win for workers around the country”. Now, the new laws are being portrayed as a dire threat, which allow every bargaining dispute that runs for nine months or more (most EA disputes) to be declared an “intractable dispute”. The dispute could then be shunted into arbitration, where longstanding conditions could be stripped from workers.

So was the NTEU leadership being loose with the truth when the law was passed, or now? Or both?

The argument that the new “intractable disputes” clauses in the Fair Work Act mean there is an urgent need to finalise bargaining is unsubstantiated fearmongering. It will take many months, or possibly years, for the first “intractable dispute declaration” to wind its way through Fair Work and the courts. During this time, industrial action can continue and even escalate. And any real threat of looming arbitration should be an incentive to escalate high impact strikes rather than limp along at a handful of strike days per semester.

Employer ballots should also not be a source of fear. They are an increasingly common employer tactic, but can be defeated by an active union branch—as demonstrated by the convincing wins for the NTEU at Newcastle (where 89 percent of voting academic staff and 75 percent of professional staff rejected a proposed non-union deal in December) and Curtin (where 72 percent voted against a non-union deal in February). The threat of a non-union ballot should strengthen the case for industrial action, which boosts union membership and strengthens the organisation needed to win any such vote.

One approach that should be ruled out is settling quickly on a vague “heads of agreement” with management. This allows the crucial detail of the clauses to be worked out in back rooms, with workers demobilised and management, as a result, feeling confident to insist on their wording of the clauses.

Fighting to win

In every significant industrial struggle, there is a “battle within the battle”—a contest within the union about what strategy and tactics to adopt. There will be more conservative forces pushing to moderate claims and limit strikes to a token few days of action. And there will be forces who bend every nerve to build the sort of industrial power needed to win. Very often, a successful struggle depends on the development of this kind of “militant minority” within the union.

Members of NTEU Fightback have played exactly this role throughout the industrial campaign at Sydney University: broadening the horizons of bargaining with ambitious, concrete claims, and pushing for the industrial action needed to win them.

If workers in higher education (or anywhere else!) are going to fight to win, it will happen because rank-and-file activists take a different bargaining approach to the way things have played out at Sydney. They will argue against concessions, rather than ushering them in without a fight, and recognise the NTEU national office as compromised from the start. Members need to be equipped to tell the difference between a vague pronouncement of “improved” conditions and the reality of weak, unenforceable clauses.

And most of all, an organising strategy is needed that is relentlessly focused on escalating industrial action in a timeframe of weeks and months. The outcome of the industrial campaign at Sydney Uni underlines the consequences of doing anything else.


Appendix: The devil in the detail of the Sydney Uni agreement

As documented (in detail) by NTEU Fightback, management’s framework contains historic attacks on crucial conditions across the entire workforce.

Real wages face a dramatic cut. An HEO 5 (step 5) worker on $87,000 per year (just above the average full-time female wage in Australia) will be around $100 per week worse off by July 2024, relative to inflation. There is no back pay. So this worker will lose around $20,000 in total—equivalent to more than ten weeks of pay—by the time the deal expires in 2026.

So hypothetically, if workers had taken all-out strike action for ten solid weeks, even with zero strike pay, they would have lost less in wages than the cut in real wages delivered by management’s deal accepted by the NTEU bargaining team.

As one of the richest universities in the country, and with the most militant university workforce, Sydney Uni would have been the perfect site for the NTEU to win its national pay claim, which is the consumer price index plus 1.5 percent. However, the union’s officials showed zero interest in pursuing this course.

Explosion in Education Focused Roles. For years, management has worked to undermine 40:40:20 positions, which allocate 40 percent of paid time to research, the same amount to teaching, and 20 percent to admin. According to an NTEU fact sheet, in 2000 some 70 percent of all teaching at Sydney Uni was done by academics with 40:40:20 jobs. But this figure had fallen to just 40 percent of teaching by 2020, as management dramatically expanded “casual” employment with zero paid research fraction.

This decline in “balanced” positions with a meaningful research fraction is set to accelerate, with an explosion in EFRs at Sydney Uni.

The framework proposed by management lets them expand the number of EFRs from 120 positions in the last agreement to 650 positions in the new EA—25 percent of all teaching not done by casuals. As the NTEU fact sheet notes:

“Nothing in the Enterprise Agreement would prevent management from determining that whole disciplines or sub-disciplines should be strategically ‘teaching-focused’, and initiating a change management proposal to spill all existing 40:40:20 positions and fill them with EFRs.”

Academic teaching workloads are often punishing because management systematically underestimates the time taken for tasks such as preparing a lecture or tutorial. Staff in EFR positions are hit especially hard because the teaching load can be up to 70 percent. So more EFRs means exhausted teachers with no time for research to stay on top of their field, let alone to advance knowledge or to publish.

PhD Fellows are set to be yet another category of insecure, underpaid teaching staff with punishing workloads. These positions, which appear to have been cooked up by the NTEU’s own national office, are a big step towards US-style “grad student” roles becoming a major form of employment in Australian universities.

Workers in these jobs will be fired as soon as they get a PhD. PhD-qualified workers will not be eligible to even apply. The workloads appear punitive and the wages miserable, judging from the sketchy information given to the Sydney Uni NTEU branch committee. There appears to be no cap on this mode of employment, giving management yet another way to replace 40:40:20 positions with low paid, gruelling roles.

Internal advertising for professional roles is a longstanding condition that has provided opportunities for current workers. This will be scrapped for HEO 8 and 9 under management’s proposal (about a third of the professional workforce) and weakened for everyone else. Local managers will no longer need to get authorisation from central management before advertising a position externally, as long as an “identical” role has been advertised, but not filled, in the previous six months.

Obviously, this means weaker career paths and less job security for existing staff. It also enables management to hire external corporate head-kickers from banks or other private industries into lower-level managerial positions in order to drive “culture change”.

Aren’t there some gains?

The closer you look, the thinner any wins get.

There’s a claim of “payment for all hours worked” for casuals. However, the draft clause puts a new requirement on workers to alert management in advance if they may not be able to do the required work within the existing (ridiculously small) number of hours stipulated for an enormous amount of work. Of course, management can then direct workers not to do this work.

This clause risks being useless unless it specifies that work such as reading texts, attending lectures and preparation for tutorials are all paid activities for whatever amount of time they take. In fact, this clause goes the other way, by removing legal ambiguity about what might be “required” for the job. This will now be defined by management alone.

Casuals will be left with the same dilemma as now: do the job they want to do (and which students deserve) on unpaid overtime, or do the rushed, slipshod job that management will pay for, and face the possibility of not being reemployed. The clause will entrench wage theft, not remove it.

The much-touted gains on leave consist, in large part, of just giving workers access to their existing personal leave for purposes including gender affirmation, menstruation and menopause.

It’s positive that some of the forms of petty tyranny dished out by mid-level management will be constrained. For instance, local managers won’t be able to strip professional workers of pay increments when they shift to a new role, and will have to ask for volunteers before conscripting people to work over the New Year break.

In line with employers around the world, there are incremental steps to give easier access to “work from home”. And as in the 2018 EA, there is an extended redeployment period (though it’s unclear if workers will have to pay for this by sacrificing some of their redundancy entitlements).

But all of this is financial peanuts compared to the big gains for management from stripping conditions and slashing real wages. For workers at Sydney Uni, working life will get worse under this EA, not better.

When faced with historic attacks like this, the first duty of a decent unionist is to be honest about what we’re looking at. Instead, leading union officials and the bargaining team have downplayed the dramatic attacks and puffed up the incremental improvements into “historic” status.

This latter approach is shared by the group Solidarity, a member of which is on the NTEU bargaining team. In summing up the supposed positives, their members at Sydney Uni state this rotten deal sets “a new benchmark for tertiary sector wage increases, plus five days’ casual sick pay, defending the 40/40/20 workload model for academics, 20 per cent decasualisation, 330 new jobs and gender affirmation leave”.

Each of these assertions is an overstatement or misleading. This “historic deal” doesn’t even deliver the most basic item in the log of claims: for “no diminution of conditions”.

The “benchmark wage increases” are very large real wage cuts.

The five days’ casual sick pay is said by the bargaining team not to be an EA clause, but a commitment by management to develop policy. So it is unlikely to be enforceable.

The 40:40:20 clause remains intact for the dwindling minority of academics who are covered by it. But management has a free hand to keep cutting the number of these positions, replacing them either with PhD Fellows or EFRs.

According to NTEU Fightback, the most recent available draft clause on “decasualisation” states only that management will take “reasonable steps” towards a 20 percent reduction in the proportion of casuals over three years. This is not an enforceable commitment. In any case, with a new, even lower paid option of insecure work available to management in the form of PhD Fellows, management may well reduce the proportion of casual labour by shifting work to these lower paid “fixed-term” roles instead.

The 330 new jobs, when broken down, turn out to be 220 “education focused” roles with punitive workloads. The other 110 jobs will have a research fraction, with half of these reserved for long-term casuals. Congrats to those 55 workers, but when credible estimates for the long-term casual workforce at Sydney Uni start at 4,000, this is not much of a “benchmark” to be proud of.

Leave for gender affirmation is welcome, though like the other gains on leave a significant part of the entitlement is to provide access to workers’ own already existing leave entitlement.

Solidarity’s glib list of overstated or misleading “gains” functions as left cover for a deal that takes wages and crucial conditions backwards. This is understandable, given they helped to negotiate it—but it’s a deception nonetheless. No real union fightback can be built on these dishonest foundations.

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